Things to do in Kyoto

Japanese Tea Ceremony

Aikido

Ikebana

Calligraphy

Incense lesson

Maiko dinner or Maiko performance

Japanese cooking class

Cycling tour

Gear

Eat sushi

Eat ramen

Ramen is famous all over the world as a hearty dish that satisfies the hunger of students and busy salarymen. Whilst most people may be familiar with instant ramen in a cup that you remove the lid from and add boiling water to, this style of instant ramen does not compare to the depth of flavour and satisfaction of a fresh bowl of ramen eaten in a local Kyoto restaurant. Take some time to look a little bit closer at ramen in Kyoto and enjoy these highly crafted and satisfying meals in a bowl. 

Ramen is said to be based on a Chinese soup and noodle dish with some toppings that became popular in Japan in the early 1900’s and was adapted for local tastes to become the Japanese dish we know today. Current day ramen usually consists of three main parts, the noodles, the soup and the toppings. While each often vary from store to store in terms of flavours or ingredients, these three components are what make ramen, ramen.  

The noodles in ramen are made from wheat flour, salt, water and varying ratios of alkaline mineral water (kansui). It is the amount of kansui that changes the texture of the noodles and allows them to be served in the soup without becoming soft or falling apart. The soup is often made from boiling pork or chicken bones, dried fish, mushrooms, onions and other ingredients to develop a deep flavour that is often unique to each store, and differing regions in Japan. The amount of meat and collagen in the cooking process of the soup results in a thick, rich broth that coats the noodles. The soup broth can then be flavoured with the most common choices being soy sauce, salt or miso. 

The crowning glory of ramen is the wide variety of toppings that are available to complete the dish. From perfectly boiled seasoned eggs with runny yolks, to fresh green onions, bean shoots or dried seaweed, the most hearty topping for ramen would have to be slices or barbecued or roasted pork (chashu). With each venue promoting their ‘Special Ramen’ or ‘House Ramen’, trying the special ramen on offer in a restaurant is often the best way to taste the features of the local method and style of ramen with the chef’s selection of broth to match the toppings.

When traveling around Kyoto or Japan, look out for signs that say ラーメン (Ramen) and take a look inside and try one of the chef’s recommended dishes. This is the easiest way to become acquainted with authentic ramen if it is your first time. If, however, you are feeling more adventurous, or see something that you like on the menu, be sure to try it as you will not be disappointed! A common side dish served in ramen restaurants are pan fried dumplings (gyoza) or fried rice (chahan or yakimeshi). The combination of ramen and gyoza/ fried rice is common set available and is an affordable choice that can be enjoyed for lunch or dinner. 

An unmistakeable sound that you will surely hear inside of a ramen restaurant is the sound of diners loudly slurping their noodles through their teeth as they eat. Whilst it may seem a little strange at first, there is a reason behind the sounds. As ramen is served steaming hot to you, and you undeniably want to eat it straight way, slurping the noodles through your teeth allows the noodles and soup to cool down just enough so as to not burn your mouth. Give this technique a try when you are eating ramen in Japan as it has the added effect of letting the chef know that you are enjoying his meal.

Eat kaiseki dinner

Saihoji (Kokedera)

Enjoy beautiful Japanese garden

The style and peace of traditional Japanese gardens are appreciated all over the world. Kyoto is home to some of the most breathtaking gardens in Japan where you can enjoy the tranquility and beauty of such a unique style of garden design. 

While the style of Japanese gardens have changed a little over time and to suit their local purpose, there are several common themes that can be appreciated. Most garden designs are influenced by the natural landscape surrounding the garden. Mountains and high volcanic peaks are represented by large rocks, while rivers, seas and clouds are represented by small pebbles. The designs are intended to mimic the natural environment and rely heavily on naturally occurring materials. This does not mean that the garden is separate from the surrounding architecture or buildings. In fact, a fundamental principle of Japanese garden design is that there is to be a flow from the garden into the building and the view of the garden is to be framed from within any neighbouring structures.

As you visit temples, shrines or homes around Kyoto and Japan, you will notice that the garden features prominently in the overall design. Large verandas overlooking the gardens provide places for quiet contemplation, whilst gardens are perfectly framed and composed to be appreciated while sitting inside rooms. Some gardens may be very simple, but they will never appear stark. Other gardens will feature layers of trees and varying textures of foliage, but will never feel overcrowded. The key to successful Japanese garden design is the balance of the design that allows for the viewer to use their imagination to contemplate the meaning or to simply enjoy the beauty of the space. 

You are spoilt for choice when visiting Kyoto for the sheer number of Japanese gardens which can be enjoyed and appreciated in all seasons. Whilst spring and the blooming of the cherry blossoms is famed as a time to enjoy gardens in Japan, autumn provides a striking change of colour to the leaves on the trees that creates a stunning backdrop to soak up. In summer, the vibrancy of the lush green garden can be enjoyed for its beauty and also its cooling atmosphere while in winter, the gardens with a light covering of snow on bare branches provides a striking spectacle.

It is difficult to avoid viewing a Japanese garden when visiting Kyoto and any of the shrines or temples, but an excellent place to enjoy many aspects of Japanese garden design is with a visit to Nanzen-ji temple and neighbouring sub temples. Nanzenji is set on sprawling grounds and expansive gardens that provide a changing backdrop for this imposing structure as the seasons change. The complex around Nanzen-ji features zen Japanese rock gardens, pond garden and leafy gardens. During autumn evenings, the gardens of Nanzen-ji and surrounding smaller temples are illuminated at night providing the opportunity to walk the grounds and enjoy the autumnal colours in a new way. 

Getting to Nanzen-ji is easy with the number 5 city bus stopping right near the complex or you can take the Tozai subway line and get off at Keage station which is only a 7 or 8 minute walk away. 

Enjoy fantastic tempura course dinner

Ippodo tea shop

The Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama

Located on the western outskirts of Kyoto city is the area of Arashiyama. Arashiyama is the location of the most popular natural sightseeing spots in the area, the Bamboo Forest. Situated at the foothills of the mountains that surround Kyoto, Arashiyama sits on the banks of the Katsura river. This is a great place to visit any time of year, but the most popular would be during Cherry Blossom Season in April and then for the Autumn Colours from late October to November.  There are several options for getting to this area. You can take the Hankyu line from central Kyoto to Katsura and change for the Arashiyama line or you can alight at Omiya or Saiin Station to transfer to the single car Keifuku Arashiyama line which rumbles through the back streets of Kyoto to Arashiyama. Alternatively, there is the JR Sagano line from JR Kyoto station. All lines will bring you to the central shopping and restaurant village of Arashiyama which can be immediately enjoyed on arrival. The Hankyu line from Katsura will however terminate on the southern side of the river. However, don’t be concerned about this as the Togetsukyo Bridge (Moon Crossing Bridge) that crosses the Katsura river is a landmark of the area and the perfect place to enjoy views of the river, the township and surrounding mountains. 

From any of these locations it is only a short distance to the Bamboo Forest on the western side of town. It is easily accessed on foot from any of the train stations, or a fun way to get around is by renting a bike! You can rent a bike easily from any of the train stations and it will give you a unique perspective of getting around using one of the most common modes of transport in Japan. 

Visiting the Bamboo Forest is a great way to walk amongst the natural material that has been used in Japan for thousands of years in construction and for arts and crafts. Today, many items are still manufactured using bamboo due to its strength and rapid growth rates. Entry to the forest is free, and you upon entering, you will immediately notice a drop in temperature. The shade and lighting that the tall clumps of bamboo provide create a magical atmosphere that is a stark contrast to the otherwise harsh urban environment that is seen in many other places in Japan. Take time here to walk through the paths in the forest and watching the light shimmer through down to the ground. If there is a breeze the bamboo creates a calming rustling sound that can be appreciated from a quiet corner in the forest. 

Once you have relaxed and enjoyed the natural greenery in the forest, there are several other activities to do in Aarashiyama. You can dine at one of the many local restaurants that cater for visitors, shop for souvenirs or locally made crafts, or you can take some time to visit Tenryu-ji temple which features a fantastic traditional Japanese garden which you can explore at your own pace. If you still have more time to spend in the area and are looking for a fun activity to do outdoors, there are boats for hire on the Katsura next to the Togetsukyo Bridge. The boats for hire are in an area of the river that doesn’t run too rapidly so it is a fun and relaxing way to enjoy the view of the surrounding mountains and historical bridge.

Whether you are visiting Arashiyama with the intention to only see the Bamboo forest, don’t be surprised by what you can find by exploring a little further of the main paths. Perhaps take a stroll down a quiet side street and see what you can find? You can appreciate the architecture and style of the well preserved private traditional machiya (town houses) and gardens along with being gifted with plenty of opportunities to find a peaceful spot along the river to enjoy what is a very naturally beautiful spot.

Kimono rental

Nishiki Market

Kyoto is home to some of the best food in Japan. Developed from it’s from it’s ancient history as the former capital and its landlocked location, Kyoto has it’s own unique style of cuisine that is revered around the world. One of the best places to get to see, smell, touch and most importantly taste some of these offerings is by undertaking a tour of the Nishiki Market in central Kyoto. Running parallel one block north from Shijo Street between Hankyu Kawaramachi and Karasuma subway stations, Nishiki Market is easily accessible on food form the centre of the city. Regardless of whether you area chef, a home cook, or someone who just likes to eat, visiting Nishiki is a great opportunity to experience the hustle and bustle of this working market and try local food that you might not have ever seen or tasted before.

With its origins as far back as 1310 with the first fish shop opening in this area, today Nishiki Market is home to over 100 stalls and restaurants selling some of the best local vegetables, fruit, meat, and produce that Kyoto has to offer. The atmosphere inside the narrow strip that forms the market is lively and welcoming to tourists. Whilst many stores cater their offerings to local restaurants and businesses, most stores dually cater for visitors with plenty of free tastings and opportunities to speak with the store owners about their products. Several stalls also have ready to eat food available to purchase and eat within the market. Take care here to follow the directions of the staff and only eat in the areas designated by the store holders.   

An interesting thing about the stalls at Nishiki is that most tend to focus their range on a particular product. From stores selling solely different types of local pickles, sesame seeds, miso, tofu, tea or rice each store owner has expert knowledge in the origins of their goods. You can buy just about any seasonally fresh or preserved ingredient used in Japanese cooking at Nishiki. From the biggest, sweetest and juiciest peaches in summer to various dried fish and mushrooms for making dashi stock at home all year round, the range is varied and always interesting! 

Visiting Nishiki market is a great activity to do at any time of year or season, but it is a particularly good thing to do if you find yourself in Kyoto on a rainy day. With the market covered with a coloured glass roof, it means shopping and exploring can be done in any weather. Conveniently located nearby Teramachi and Shin-Kyogoku shopping streets, where you can buy a variety of clothes and other goods, it means that you will not be lost for an interesting and rewarding activity regardless of the conditions outside.

Sanjo dori shopping street

Nakamura Tokichi in Uji

Origami

Origami is the traditional Japanese craft of paper folding that has been practiced for centuries. The artful purpose of origami is to create a sculpture from a square sheet of paper that has not been cut, glued or marked in any way. The skill of the craft comes from achieving the results through only making folds to the paper. 

Sculptures produced by origami can take many forms. From single sheet designs such as the famous paper crane or more intricate designs of modular origami where individual folded sheets are then joined together to make a much larger piece. Any paper can be used to make origami, so long as it is capable of folding the crease after you have folded it. By far one of the most enjoyable ways to practice origami is by using some authentic origami paper which has been purchased  from a specialist paper or stationery retailer. The paper traditionally used for origami is known as washi and and is made from wood fibres, however, there are many different styles of paper designed for use in origami from coloured squares, patterned designs to foiled backed paper.

There is a widely known legend in Japan that if someone folds 1000 individual paper cranes then they shall be granted a wish of eternal good luck. This legend has become more widely known outside of Japan through the story of a young girl named Sadako Sasaki. Sadako was young girl when she was exposed to radiation following the atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima in World War 2. She became ill with leukaemia and at the age of 12 began folding paper cranes in order to have her wish granted. The official story notes that she completed the 1000 cranes but continued to fold them after her wish did not come true until she eventually succumbed to her illness. Other versions of this story say that she completed 644 with the remainder completed by her classmates. Many people still continue to individually fold 1000 paper cranes as a memorial to the deaths of people during World War 2 with the hope of their wishes being granted through the continuation of this ancient paper craft.

If you come across a store selling locally made origami paper in Kyoto, pick some up as it makes an excellent souvenir that can be used in many different applications and will provide an interesting and long lasting memory of your visit to Japan. Many books are sold in stores which give descriptions on to make various sculptures and there are also internet video tutorials available so you can put your new paper to use.

Fushimi Inari

Fushimi Inari Taisha is one of the most iconic sights in Kyoto. Instantly identifiable from its thousands of red tori gates places around the mountain side, Fushimi Inari is an excellent spot to again appreciate Japanese architecture but also get some exercise by walking on the mountain side under the estimated 10,000 of gates. Established in 711AD, Fushimi Inari Taisha has been a place where people have come to pray for their harvests, prosperity and the health of their families for hundreds of years. These days it is a very popular spot in Kyoto for visitors to explore the mystical grounds and find a quiet corner to enjoy the mountain views and long stone paths under the arches of the tori gates. 

One of the most common questions about Fushimi Inari Taisha is, ‘Why are there so many red arches?’. The particular style of arch, or tori gate, in general represent the passing of prayers from people to the gods. So it is said that each time you walk under a tori gate that your prayer is then passed to the gods. This theory is more or less multiplied at Fushimi Inari Taisha with the presence of so many gates. If you walk the full course you will see around 100,000 tori gates of varying sizes and ages. Each of them however have the same purpose, and that is to pass prayers to the gods.

Another common question about the gates is, ‘Why are they red?’.  You will notice that the tori gates are painted a bright red/orange colour as it is generally said to ward off evil forces, however, at Fushimi Inari it is also said to be a colour that represents the good harvests that come from the god present at the shrine. The material used to paint the gates is made from red earth and mercury. These chemicals also have the added benefit of helping to preserve the timber used in the construction of the gates. 

You will also notice that there are carvings in Japanese kanji on most of the tori gates. These carvings represent the names of companies and individuals who have donated money to the shrine and in turn have purchased one of the gates. The sponsorship of the shrine in this way ensure upkeep is maintained and that fallen or broken gates can be repaired and replaced. The lowest priced gates start at around 400,000yen and prices can go over 1million yen for larger gates. 

Hiking the entire course can take anywhere between 2 and three 3 hours, depending on your energy levels and how crowded the paths are. If you decide you do not want to complete the full course, there are maps located all around the grounds which show you various paths to take back down the mountain to the entrance. Walking the full course is a rewarding and satisfying experience and the higher places on the trail certainly offer smaller crowds and places for peaceful contemplation. 

Access is easy by either taking the JR Nara line from JR Kyoto station and getting off at Inari Station or by taking the Keihan line and getting off at Fushimi Inari Station. Entry is free and the shrine is one of the few places open all hours, so if you do visit Fushimi Inari Taisha after dark, you will likely see many locals using the mountainous course as their regular exercise spot. 

Sake tasting in Fushimi

Shogunzuka

Shoren-in

Starbucks in Heian Shrine

Starbucks in Sanjo Ohashi

A day trip to Obubu tea farm

Japanese knife shopping

Zen lesson in Shunkoin

Ginkakuji (Silver Pavillion)

Eat matcha ice cream at Gion Tsujiri

Feel wild monkeys at Arashiyama Monkey Park

Jogging or cycling along Kamogawa river

Maiko makeup

Eat lunch at Hachidaime Gihei

Eat dinner at Michelin star restaurant

Yamazaki Whisky Distillery

Japan is renowned for its locally produced whisky which comes out of the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery, located just outside of Kyoto. If you are interested in drinking world class whisky or just learning about the process of how it is produced, be sure to visit the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery during your trip to Japan. Be sure to check which tour you are interested in and book early on the website. Last minute places due to cancellations may become available, but it is best to secure your place on a tour in advance to avoid missing out.

The town of Yamazaki is located a short train ride on the JR line from Kyoto. The manicured grounds of the distillery are an even shorter stroll from the station. Upon arrival at the gates, you will sign in at the front building for your chosen tour and are handed an audio guide and a lanyard with your group number. Participation in the Yamazaki Whisky Distillery Tour costs ¥1000.

From here, you will make your way to the meeting point inside the whisky museum. The museum is set inside a large building over two levels. Here you will find a magnificent display of the bottles and whisky produced out of Yamazaki over the years. You can get an introduction to the history of the company and learn about some of the awards these uniquely Japanese whiskies have received. Your tour will commence precisely at the allocated time where you will gather for an introduction of the whisky making process by the tour leader. Tours are conducted in Japanese, but you can easily follow by using the audio guide throughout.

You will then be led through the production areas of the factory where you can witness the machinery used to produce the whisky. Upon entering the still room you will notice both the warmth and the smell generated from the whisky being made. It will be explained how the various shapes the stills ultimately affect the taste of the end product. Following this, you will then get to experience the most impressive part of the tour which is viewing of the barrel warehouse. Here, there are thousands of oak barrels are kept containing whisky produced at Yamazaki while it matures. You can spend some time in this space taking photos and looking for the oldest barrels you can find!

At this point the tour of the production area ends and you will then be taken back for your whisky tasting! You will be given four tastes of whisky and will learn about the flavours and tasting notes of each. A tutorial is then provided on how to drink Yamazaki whisky in different ways. You can follow the suggestion of the tour leader or you can chose to enjoy it any way you please with soda water, bottled water and ice freely on hand. Complementing the whisky tasting are some locally made snacks which pair exceptionally well with the flavour of the Yamzaki whisky.

Once you have enjoyed the tasting and learned a little more about the process of whisky production, the tour will then conclude. If you have some extra time and would like to enjoy some more tasting, be sure to go back to the museum to the Whisky Library on the ground floor. The library features a selection of paid tastings of Yamazaki Whisky and other whiskies from around the world. It is a good idea to take this opportunity to try some rare drops that may be difficult to find (or too expensive) elsewhere.

Whether you partake in viewing the Whisky Museum at your own pace or joining one of the paid tours, a few hours spent at Yamazaki is an excellent way to grow a deeper appreciation of the skill and quality of whisky produced just outside of Kyoto.

Overnight in ryokan

Staying in a traditional Japanese Inn or ‘ryokan’ is a unique experience and is likely to be different to any accomodation you have experienced before. Ryokan have existed in Japan for over 2000 years, with the oldest continually operating inn opening in 705 AD. Originally established as lodging points along ancient highways and mountain roads, today, ryokan provide a place local Japanese and visitors to find some peace and quiet in a very traditional atmosphere. Whilst many ryokan have been lost through the years due to the expansion of Japanese cities and their replacement by modern hotels, there are still thousands of ryokan that continue to operate across the country. They range in size from a few rooms to much larger in scale, but most evoke a sense of peace and restfulness that is vastly different to even the highest end western style hotels.

The lobby and entrance to Ryokan are not dissimilar to western style accomodation, except for the the need to remove your shoes upon entering. There is often a large communal lounge area (with coin operated massage chairs) or gift shops where people can relax, chat and enjoy their surroundings. Rooms vary depending on the venue and price point, but traditional style rooms feature tatami mat flooring, sliding doors from the entrance into the main room and an enclosed veranda or porch from which you can enjoy the view. Again, depending on the particular ryokan, your room may or may not have its own private bathroom. Traditionally, toilet and bathroom facilities were shared with other guests of the same gender, however, many these days offer rooms with ensuite bathrooms. Many ryokan have been established in areas with hot springs so is likely that there will be a communal bath that is fed by local hot spring water. Higher end establishments will offer private hot spring baths, perhaps even in your room, but this all depends on the location. 

In your room, you will find a robe (yukata) that you can wear throughout the hotel. You can wear the yukata while relaxing in your room or the lounge, reading a book or while eating dinner or playing a game of table tennis! As many ryokan were located along highways and were used as stopping points for travellers, in earlier days, they were located away from other services like shops and restaurants. As such, the culture developed to include the service of dinner and breakfast as part of the cost of the room. Dinner can sometimes be served privately in your room and consists of multiple dishes prepared from local seasonal ingredients, known as ‘kaiseki’. Enjoying a night in a ryokan is an excellent way to experience the local dishes that have been carefully prepared and served to guests. If dinner is not served in your room, there will be a large dining room where you can enjoy your meal and excellent service of your hosts. Be sure to arrive for dinner at your agreed time to ensure that you enjoy the food in the way and at the temperature as intended by the chef.

While you are enjoying your dinner, staff will likely be in your room making your bed (futon) for the night. When you arrive in your room during the day, you will find a low table and chairs with some supplies for making tea in the centre of your room. After you return from dinner, the table will have been moved aside and your futon will have been made, providing a comfortable place to rest after enjoying the hot springs, meal and charm of the ryokan you have selected. 

After waking the next morning, you can then enjoy breakfast which is usually served in the dining room at your agreed time. Again, breakfast is made up of multiple small local dishes. A traditional Japanese breakfast served in a ryokan can be challenging for some, but many ryokan that host international guests will also offer western style dishes at breakfast time. After breakfast it will be time to depart the ryokan and look back on a remarkable experience that should be experienced at least once when visiting Japan. 

Machiya stay

Discover what’s so hot about tofu

Japanese pickles

Pickled vegetables have been eaten for centuries in Japan. Kyoto is famous for it’s pickles which are known as tsukemono. From it’s time as the ancient landlocked capital of Japan, the people of Kyoto had to find a way to preserve vegetables to sustain them through the cold snowy winters and to satisfy the royalty. As a result of this need and desire to have delicious and healthy food on hand, pickling as a way of preserving took off as the most common method.

If you have been lucky enough to have eaten a meal in Japan it is very likely that you will have been served some small side dish of pickled vegetable. Pickles form an integral part of most Japanese meals as a way to garnish, complement, cleanse your palate or aid in digestion. They provide a contrast in colour, texture and flavour that would surely be missed if absent from a Japanese meal. The most common vegetables used in pickles across Japan are white radish, turnips, cucumbers, plums, carrots, and cabbage. An essential ingredient in preparing pickles is salt. Most pickles in Japan are prepared using salt, but can be done in other methods such as rice bran, sake lees, soy sauce or vinegar.

Local to Kyoto pickles are Shibazuke, which is a mixture of cucumber, eggplant and red shiso leaves and ginger which are pickled in a plum vinegar. The Shibazuke have a bright purple colour which is attained from the red shiso leaves and they are as distinctive as they are versatile. Senmaizuke are turnips which have been pickled with vinegar, dried kelp (konbu) and pepper while Saikyozuke is sliced cod which has been pickled in miso before being grilled and served. These three are just examples of local pickles that originated in Kyoto. Even today, local pickle makers are coming up with new ideas to pickle different ingredients and using different methods in order to come up with new and interesting combinations and to use seasonal ingredients in unique ways. 

If you are interested in trying some of the array of pickled made locally in Japan, be sure to visit Nishiki Market where you can visit one of the several pickle stalls and try the locally made pickles. Choose your favourite one and take some home to use in your own cooking or share with your family and friends.

Make wish at three waterfalls of Kiyomizu temple

Greet deers in Nara

A popular activity for people visiting Kyoto is to take a day trip to the nearby ancient former capital city of Nara. The natural beauty and smaller crowds in Nara offer a peaceful opportunity to stroll around this city and view several ancient shrines and temples at your own pace. There is a handy tourist bus that runs loops around the city so getting around is no trouble at all. Or why not hire a bike and explore the various sights on two wheels?  Nara is 

easily accessible from Kyoto on either the JR or Kintetsu lines and it takes around 40 minutes to each the centre of the local attractions. 

Upon leaving either JR or Kintetsu station, you will soon find yourself greeted by some of Nara’s most famous and friendly locals- the wild deer that roam freely around the streets and the central Nara Park! While it may be strange at first to see wild deer walking along the footpath or crossing the road, the deer in Nara provide a unique opportunity to get up close with these creatures. Whether you want to sit back and watch the people interacting with the deer, or purchase some crackers from the local vendors (¥100) and try hand feeding the deer yourself, walking the streets side by side with deer in Nara is a unique experience.

The main place to see deer in Nara is throughout Nara park which you will certainly cross if you are visiting any other attraction in town. Nara Park which was established in the year 1300 and is one of the oldest in Japan, is a sprawling park featuring many lakes and walking paths that links many of the sights in this city. Deer are viewable just about everywhere in the park but they do sometimes venture away from the main areas and can be seen in the middle of intersections or down residential streets. Most of the deer are friendly and have had enough interaction with humans that they will not cause any harm. Be wary though if you have crackers in your hand or pocket, the deer will know, and will begin to follow you! If you want a photo of a more placid deer, it is probably best not to feed them until after you have got your picture. As soon as the deer smells your crackers, they will most likely not leave you alone until they have been fed!

Another charming quirk of the deer is that they tend to bow to encourage visitors to give them a cracker or to say ’thank you’ once they have been fed. Is this the deer being particularly polite or is this just the normal habit for them? 

If you are visiting Nara in the first half of August, make it your plan to check out the Nara Tokae lantern festival which runs for ten days during summer. The festival features 20,000 lanterns laid out across Nara Park which are lit one by one by local volunteers as the sun sets each evening. The result is fields of soft glowing candlelight across Nara Park in the foreground and the silhouettes of Nara’s ancient buildings in the background. This is certainly one of the more peaceful summer festivals in Japan and can be enjoyed by people of all ages. The deer don’t seem to stick around for the lantern festival after the sun sets with most of them returning home to their beds, but it is a good opportunity to spend the afternoon exploring Nara and then enjoying a lovely local festival in the evening. 

If you are coming to Nara purely with the intention of visiting one of the ancient sights you are bound to cross paths with one of the friendly local deer so make sure that you take some time to sit, relax and enjoy how the different deer respond with inquisition or indifference to the human visitors.

Pottery making

The beauty of Japanese pottery ranges from hand formed cups and bowls to highly glazed and painted dishes and vases. There is something on the spectrum of Japanese pottery that will appeal to most tastes, and budgets.

The particular style of pottery that comes out of Kyoto is known as ‘Kyo-yaki’ and has been practiced by the locals for hundreds of years, particularly in the east of the city near Kiyomizu Temple in the Gojozaka district. The first kiln to be built in Kyoto was over 1,200 years ago by a monk for Seikan Temple. There are several pottery stores and studios that exist in Kyoto today where you can either pick up a locally made souvenir to take home, or give making your own piece a go. Pottery making was refined in Kyoto by local craftsmen and also those with skills in pottery from China and Korea who traveled to Kyoto at the time. As Kyoto was the capital city, and home to the Emperor and other nobility for hundreds of years, it was the centre of arts, craft and culture in Japan. The pieces of Kyo-yaki originally produced were used in tea ceremony for the aristocracy. Eventually, the beauty and craftsmanship of the Kyo-yaki was able to be widely appreciated by the rest of society in Japan.

The tradition of pottery making and trade continues still in this area today and is celebrated annually with the Gojozaka Pottery Festival. Each year between August 7-10 local ceramists and vendors line the streets around Kiyomizu Temple and sell there crafts. Visiting the district at this time of year is a great way to view a large range of pottery available for purchase in a festival like atmosphere. It is also a great opportunity to pick up a bargain, with many traders open to negotiation on price in the final days of the festival. 

Taking a class when traveling in a new country is one of the best ways to experience a part of the culture in a fun and hands on way. Luckily there are many choices for such experiences in Kyoto where you can try your hand at making some of your very own Kyo-yaki. In many of the classes on offer in Kyoto you will get experience at using local clay for make a few pieces of pottery which are then glazed and fired. While you will not immediately be able to take your pottery home, your hard work will be sent home to you in a few weeks once the pottery has completely set and dried.

Tsuzure ori

Dinner at Sodoh Higashiyama

Enjoy night light-up at Kodaiji

(Try to) count 15 stones at Ryoanji

Shopping in Takashimaya department store B1 floor

Go to Kitano Tenmangu market on 25th of the month

If you are interested in seeking out a bargain, make sure that you head down to Kitano Tenmangu Market. Operating only on the 25th of each month is a large market which is held in the grounds of the ancient Kitano Tenmangu Shrine and the surrounding streets. On offer is a large array of goods from up to 1000 stallholders. You can find anything from clothing, toys, tools, antiques, ceramics, fabric, plants and other traditional Japanese goods. Be sure to get to the markets early on the 25th as the market is very popular and the best items will sell out early. If you are looking for a gift or souvenir, or want to eat some local street food from a vendor, the market at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is the perfect place to visit. 

Stallholders arrive very early in the market and beginning laying out the goods and setting up their stalls for the days trade. The market opens from 6am but things are not fully up and running until around 9am as this is the time that most stallholders have unpacked all of their goods and fired up their takoyaki grills for the day. Getting to the market is easy by taking city bus 50 from Kyoto station which stops out the front of the shrine. You can’t miss the market as the stalls spill out on to the surrounding streets. Parking, both bicycle and car parking, is limited, so public transport is likely your best bet for getting there.

The market also is a great place to pick up some fresh fruit and vegetables or simply just walk around, browsing the goods and soaking up the festival like atmosphere. There are some local carnival games that kids and adults can play for a prize so, it is a fascinating place for both adults and kids to enjoy. Whether you are visiting the market with a particular purchase in mind, or a visiting just to enjoy the vibrant market atmosphere, you will not be disappointed by the range of goods available at prices lower than elsewhere in the city. 

On the other 29 days of the month that the market is not operating at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, you will see vast numbers of students rubbing the noses the stone cows at the front of the shrine. The reason for this? The shrine is known as the home of ‘the god of academics’ who is said to boost exam results. So, every year at exam time, crowds at the shrine swell with students hoping to gain good fortune and increased results on their tests.

Go to Toji market on 21st of the month